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An Engineering Perspective

10/28/2020 9:28 AM

My wife the artist sent me this.

From "Jeff on the Radio":

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That's an exceedingly odd number. Why was that gauge used? Well, because that's the way they built them in England, and English engineers designed the first US railroads. Why did the English build them like that?

Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the wagon tramways, and that's the gauge they used. So, why did 'they' use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they had used for building wagons, which used that same wheel spacing.

Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break more often on some of the old, long distance roads in England . You see, that's the spacing of the wheel ruts. So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (including England ) for their legions. Those roads have been used ever since. And what about the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match or run the risk of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome , they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing. Therefore the United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Bureaucracies live forever. So the next time you are handed a specification/procedure/process and wonder 'What horse's ass came up with this?', you may be exactly right. Imperial Roman army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses. (Two horses' asses.)

Now, the twist to the story:

When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah . The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains, and the SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses' behinds. So, a major Space Shuttle design feature, of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system, was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse's ass. And you thought being a horse's ass wasn't important? Ancient horse's asses control almost everything and....

CURRENT Horses Asses are controlling everything else.

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#1

Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/28/2020 11:04 AM

A very interesting post. Thankyou.

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#2

Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/28/2020 11:07 AM

I love this anecdotal interconnection of technologies. I think I first heard this particular story on one of science historian James Burke's TV (Connections?) shows. I vaguely remember him writing an essay for Scientific American on this , too. In both of those amusing reports there were so many plausible linking anecdotes that I considered them to be only amusing stories.

There are many different track gauges used around the world.

Some were chosen for sound engineering reasons, some for legacy concerns, a few were chosen for questionable political reasons.

The Stephenson or Standard track gauge came about for interesting reasons one can read about here.

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#10
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Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/28/2020 11:39 PM

James Burke's Connections was a great show.

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#3

Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/28/2020 11:37 AM

Had Germany prevailed in the 1939-45 global conflict, many parts of Europe and Asia would have been using 3.000 metres track gauge instead; there is a book on the topic that makes interesting reading though a level of fluency in the German language is required to fully understand its contents.

At this gauge Greater Germany's solid rocket booster would have been considerably larger in diameter, and knocked NASA's one, had it been developed at all, into a cocked hat.

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#4
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Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/28/2020 12:21 PM

He was known for proposing grandiose, nearly impossible projects that only served his political ideas.

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#6
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Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/28/2020 4:44 PM

US President Kennedy's 'choose to go to the moon' speech also fits that description.

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#7
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Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/28/2020 5:44 PM

It’s a goal, most people set goals They know they can make,... In my opinion, that’s not a goal.

When one set goals or leaders set goals, where there is risk of failing,... true leaders make take on those high risk goals and achieve them.

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#9
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Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/28/2020 10:37 PM

As one who joined NASA in 1966 I can say that we worked very hard to fulfill Kennedy's promise. And we're very proud of making it happen.

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#12
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Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/29/2020 5:32 AM

Rightly so.

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#8
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Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/28/2020 6:38 PM

I still think it was right to have stopped the German Nazis and the Italian Fascists. Don't you?

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#11
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Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/29/2020 5:31 AM

This username does not express political opinion.

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#5

Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/28/2020 2:35 PM

In addition to the romans influence, they also influence the width of the road systems, to a certain degree.

With width was determined by the Roman Legion with the legionnaires marching at 6 abreast across, help determined the width.

I’m looking for information in this, fan into some pretty decent tidbits.

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#13

Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/29/2020 8:58 AM

When I was Younger and thought I could get rich at the horse racing tracks My Mother , God bless Her soul, In Her infinite wisdom told Me "There are more horses asses at the race track then there are horses".

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#14

Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/29/2020 10:25 AM

It is not as simple as the somewhat mix of truth and myth presented by Mr. Archer. There were actually several guages of rail road tracks in the United States at one time. The fact that what we have now can more likely be attributed to the supriority of the Union's manuracturing ability over that of the Confederacy...

Nonetheless, claims about a direct line descent between ancient Roman chariot tracks and the standard U.S. railway gauge jump the tracks when confronted with the fact that despite some commonality of equipment, well into the 19th century the U.S. still did not have one “standard” railroad gauge. At the time of the Civil War, even though nearly all of the Confederacy’s railroad equipment had come from the North or from Britain (of the 470 locomotives built in the U.S. in 1860, for example, only 19 were manufactured in the South), 113 different railroad companies in the Confederacy operated on three different gauges of track. This lack of standardization was, as historian James McPherson pointed out, one of the many reasons the Union was able to finally vanquish the Confederacy militarily:

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#15
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Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/29/2020 3:41 PM

I only presented the core story of American rail gauges. Yes there were numerous gauges; most famously the narrow gauges of the Rocky Mountains. What standardized the gauge was not so much the Union efforts, but rather the success of the first trans-continental lines and the need to move freight efficiently without having to change rolling stock 3 or 4 times for one load. This for not only locally and regionally, but continentally. Like everything else in a capitalist economy standardization goes to most successful provider(s). Add the three words acquisition, merger and bankruptcy and the myriad of railroads that existed pre-1900 have now coalesced to +/- 5 major lines and maybe at most 50 shortlines that connect the outlands to the trunks.

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#16
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Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/29/2020 4:34 PM

Excellent points. The use of narrow gauge allows for shorter turn radii. But speeds are more limited. Which means narrow gauge was better suited to mountainous areas than standard gauge. Interestingly, American high speed rail has stayed with the standard gauge. However, the rail to tie fastening system is so totally not the railroad spike of yore.

Thank you for your contribution. I enjoyed it.

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#17

Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/30/2020 2:31 PM

Is is also important to beware of Llama Dung.

May 19, 2015
by Richard Quinnell Comments 4

Editor's note: I first posted the story below in my column in the EDN News Edition some 25 years ago. Recently, engineer Chris Belting of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, wrote to me to ask about it. It seems he has carried around a framed, fading copy of the original for a quarter century, and he suggested that I re-post the piece as its message is still just as valid today. Here it is for a new generation of engineers to enjoy.

Llama alert!

We engineers are so good at solving problems that we sometimes forget to ask if the problem has been posed correctly; we just solve it. Yet questioning the rationale behind product specifications can avoid a lot of pointless effort.

Consider the US Army's llamas. In the early 1940s, so the story goes, the Army wanted a dependable supply of llama dung, as required by specifications for treating the leather used in airplane seats. Submarine attacks made shipping from South America unreliable, so the Army attempted to establish a herd of llamas in New Jersey.

Only after the attempt failed did anyone question the specification. Subsequent research revealed that the US Army had copied a British Army specification dating back to Great Britain's era of colonial expansion. The original specification applied to saddle leather.

Great Britain's pressing need for cavalry to patrol its many colonies meant bring together raw recruits, untrained horses, and new saddles. The leather smell made the horses skittish and unmanageable. Treating the saddle leather with llama dung imparted an odor that calmed the horses. The treatment, therefore, became part of the leather's specification, which remained unchanged for a century.

So, on your next project, make sure you know the reasoning behind the specs. If you hear “We’ve always done it that way,” watch out for llama dung.

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#18
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Re: An Engineering Perspective

10/30/2020 2:57 PM

And a different note along the same lines... the US Calvary was once considering using camels instead of horses...

Joe Camel, reporting for duty...

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